Although I can’t admit being a great reader, no author succeeds to thrill me more than Raymond Chandler. It’s not the criminal or mystery aspect that interests me, but Chandler’s prose and Philip Marlowe who ranks among the most fascinated characters in literature. He is the only honest man in a dishonest world. He is in many ways the prototype of the modern Private Eye (along with Sam Spade), although far more layered than the parodies will have you know. He is an incredibly rich and conflicted character, who’s motive, while honourable, is never quite clear. He is an enigma, and the more we learn about him, the less we know. His world is dark, corrupt, rich, impoverished, and greedy. He seems infallible, even invulnerable to temptation but this isn’t as it seems. More than once he truly loses his temper, and I unfortunately think none of the screen adaptations (at least that I’ve seen) captures his fits of frustration. The most marking perhaps is in the Big Sleep, when he finds Carmen Sternwood naked in his apartment. She calls him a filthy name, and something in him snaps, he remarks to himself “I couldn’t stand her in that room any longer. What she called me only reminded me of that”. He manages to throw her out, and instead of resigning to the event as we expect him too, maybe pour some more drink he “[tears] the bed to pieces”. These are the moments, even though they are far and inbetween that always make me come back to his stories. I’m constantly trying to figure Marlowe out.
What I know about Marlowe is fairly simplistic, he’s smarter than a Private dick ought to be. He not only has street smarts, but is well versed in literature, history and has ongoing chess games with himself going on. He is often making allusions to other detectives, like Philo Vance or Sherlock Holmes. If not that he makes references to Wuthering Heights that goes over people’s heads. His chess games emphasis his inner turmoils, and the mentioning of the “white knight” is recurring. At times he accepts this role, while other times he bitterly acknowledges that this is no world for knights. Another angle about his character that intrigues me is his interraction with women. He isn’t the ladies man most of the films paint him out to be, when women do “fall” for him (it’s rare), it’s usually as a means of gaining advantage rather than true affection. Then, if we come back to that moment I mentioned earlier where Carmen offers herself to Marlowe, I think his character again delves into complexities that are often undermined. It’s not only the honourable thing to reject her, because it would make him better at his job. That is only part of it, and perhaps the most minor. Her presence truly enrages him, and reveals a resentment of women far deeper than one would have thought. I don’t think it’s misoginy on his part, or Chandler’s, but a hardness acquired from too many mistakes and betrayals. The next morning, out of type, he is still upset over the incident and he says “women make me sick”. It’s the only moment I’ve encountered, amidst a lot of beatings, betrayals and near death experiences that he truly holds a strong resentment and grudge. Carmen represents something for Marlowe that the reader is not allowed to understand, we can only guess and piece together a puzzle of a man who is terribly frustrated and hurt. I think a lot of it is that he was tempted to take advantage (or be taken advantage of), and not only does part of himself which he did, the other part is punishing and blaming others for these thoughts.
As I’m reading The High Window, I’m taking a break to think about who is the best screen version of Marlowe. I still haven’t seen Marlowe (1969) with James Garner, any of the Robert Mitchum, The Brasher Doubloon (1947) with George Montgomery or any of the television incarnations. If you’re good at math, that leave four screen Marlowes; Dick Powell (Murder, my Sweet, 1944), Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep, 1946), Robert Montgomery (The Lady in the Lake, 1947) and Elliot Gould (The Long Goodbye, 1973). I actually like all of these actors, and what they bring to the role. I also like all of these films, so really it’s a matter of what is closest to my own vision of who Philip Marlowe is that counts the most.
Let’s start with Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (not only because it’s the earliest film, it also so happens it has been the longest since I’ve seen it). Based on Farewell, My Lovely (the title was changed because people thought it was a Powell musical) the film is fairly accurate, and Powell is a more than serviceable Marlowe. It’s interesting to note that this is actually Chandler’s own favourite onscreen Marlowe, although He is all at once ordinary and good looking enough to play the part, but unfortunately for Powell he also doesn’t seem weathered enough. I can hardly blame that on him though. He is a little too silly for my tastes, and while there is no denying that Marlowe had a sense of humour it’s a lot darker and quicker than Powell is able to effectively pull off. Overall I’d probably rank him near the bottom of the list, although as I said earlier I like them all.
Next comes the immortal Bogart, in the classic The Big Sleep. While this vies for my favourite Chandler adaptation, it’s probably the most innacurate. Bogart captures a lot of the charm and wit of the character, and has the face for it. I think though, ultimately Hawks’ vision does not coincide with Chandler’s. Add in the editorial changes to play up on the Bogart and Bacall chemistry there isn’t much left of the story. I will say though, that Hawks makes Chandler’s convolutedness work so absurdly well. This film is truly a landmark for mainstream film, as it is so artfully done. Nearly all of Marlowe’s darkness and loneliness is cut out in this film, but Bogart manages to make it more than just a pulpy James Bond detective. I think Bogart edges out Powell, he just is a better actor.
Montgomery is an interesting and difficult case to assess. Not only did he star in the film, but he directed it and took a rather interesting approach to the subject matter. Chandler didn’t quite like it, making cracks that shooting a film in the first person is what everyone discusses in a board room before coming to their senses because it’s a ridiculous idea. I think this is not a fair thing to say about The Lady in the Lake, which I found a rather interesting experiment that fell apart more often that it should have, although not as much as I expected. Playing off of the first person narration of the novels, the camera becomes Marlowe and the only moments we ever seen Montgomery are in mirrors or reflections. This unfortunately makes it nearly impossible for me to say that anybody here is the perfect Marlowe. I think Montgomery is an incredibly talented actor, and while I admire his experiment wish he had either done this in a more traditional way or reprised the role in some way. He’s a little too clean cut for the part, but as he proved in The Night Must Fall, he can work that to his advantage. I’m putting him on the same level as Powell, because it’s a very interesting approach, even if it doesn’t hit the mark. Worth seeing.
Now we come to one of the more controversial adaptations, if not the most, of Chandler’s work; Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Not only does Altman make several changes to the original story, he transplants the story to the 1970s, which in concept sounds like a terrible idea. The late 1930s and 1940s were an interesting time in the United States, notably in the cynicism that was creeping into the homes and the back streets because of the war, ongoing class and racial issues and emerging social ideas that were set to change the country. It was all this that allowed film noir to emerge, and to become one of the most defining and relevant era/genre of film to come out of the States. It was wrong of me to think these feelings were exclusive to the afore mentioned era, even as an interpretation of one of the great icons of the genre, Philip Marlowe. Altman transfers this angst and cynicism to the 1970s with a lot of flair. I think this is aided by the fact, that as much as the great noirs completely embrace the style and feel of their respected era, Altman’s Long Goodbye does here. There is no effort to mask the time frame, and in retrospect that’s what makes it work so well. It has the same underlying themes as The Big Sleep, or The Big Heat but is presented with a lot more colour (for obvious colour related reasons), sunshine and humour (although, Hawks’ The Big Sleep is still very tongue in cheek, doesn’t quite reach the level of The Long Goodbye). The film works both as a “serious” character and thematic exploration, but also as exploration and parody of genre.
Gould may be the closest thing to an accurate portrayal of Marlowe I’ve seen. Chandler’s Marlowe was not a physical or intimidating character, he relied almost too heavily on his intelligence and intuition.This in part explains why he so readily allows himself to be beat up by various people, animals and in this case objects. However, unlike Sherlock Holmes he never really embraces his talents. I wouldn’t say he’s self loathing, but there is a definite insecurity in his character, that often comes through as self sacrificing comedy. Even from Chandler’s novels, we know very little about what motivates Marlowe, or his history. He did work for the district attorney, but somehow things fell through (I’ve noticed his explanation of why, seems to change from book to book), he is though an honest man, surrounded by criminals and liars. The screenplay does a wonderful job by really isolating Marlowe, by continually turning characters on their head. Who you think is good, is bad, and who you think is bad… are usually bad, but occasionally good. Marlowe is further isolated, by not fully updating his character to the 1970s. You could easily have transported Gould’s performance to a film made in the early 1950s, with perhaps a slight tweak in costume and his character and performance would not have felt out of place. However, the people around him tend to typify the 1970s despite playing common “types”. Their transition would be a lot more difficult (for the most part). Marlowe is a character who never gets a fair break, financially or socially. All his relationships dissolve in one way or another, even his cat leaves him. His character is constantly in limbo, between love and hate, law and crime, life and death, rich and poor… he is very much a mythical creation despite being so ordinary, there are no detectives like Marlowe, especially not in the 1970s. This is what Raymond Chandler wrote on private detectives,
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”
Altman and Gould work especially well to hide the interior and “real” emotions of Marlowe. There are only two or three moments when he really allows his emotions to emerge beyond the surface, and they are among the best and most striking scenes of the film.
It seems the next person to play the immortal Philip Marlowe will be none other than Clive Owen. I must admit this made me very happy, until I found out Frank Miller “master of subtlety” is slated to direct. Maybe I’m undervaluing the man who brought such thematic and character rich stories like Sin City and 300 to the screen, if only as the creator of the comics or co-director. Call me very apprehensive over these, I really hope it turns out well…